* Her first biography by Bradford, in 1868, was written to raise money to help support Tubman and her family, and thus presented her as a powerful Joan of Arc-type character, according to Humez, in her new study, Harriet Tubman: The Life and Life Stories.
A revised biography by Bradford, published in 1886, expunged all references
to Tubman's racial politics and portrayed Tubman as a saintly,
self-sacrificing person, making the story more palatable to racist audiences
of the post-Reconstruction period.
Boston, have always found that she "could be used in a number of
different ways, depending on what their political objectives were and what the
racial climate was like at the time.")
* Finally, the complete story is not told -- even yet. Documents related to
Tubman's life are still turning up. At a recent book signing, Larson met a man
who had just come across an uncataloged collection of Civil War-era letters
about Tubman and photographs of Tubman with Union troops. Last year, a man in
Dorchester County sorting through a dumpster discovered what may be the only
existing copy of a local advertisement calling for Tubman's capture when she
first escaped in October 1849.
After all, there is still no Harriet Tubman collection, archive or
repository where serious historians can turn to fathom the mystery of one of
the most famous women in American history.
Local and national historians say they expect research about Harriet Tubman
to heat up quickly now. The main reason is not simply the sudden wealth of
scholarship. It has to do with tourism.
The National Park Service is now making a study of 13 Underground Railroad
sites, including two in Dorchester County, to consider creating a National
Heritage Corridor dedicated to Tubman. Grants related to the project, to
archaeological digs, historical renovations and to further study are being
made available. And the potential for tourism in Eastern Shore counties like
Dorchester and Caroline has people turned on, as never before, to Tubman
"In the African-American community here, she has always been such an
important person," said Dorchester's local expert, Creighton. "But when the
National Park Service zeroed in, the tourism potential for this became
important in the state of Maryland."
So important, in fact, that competition is now under way in Caroline County
to prove that the majority of Tubman's adult work in the Underground Railroad
was not done in Dorchester at all, but in neighboring Caroline.
According to J.O.K. Walsh, president of the Caroline County Historical
Society, Tubman's best-known rescues took place in Poplar Neck, southwest of
Preston. Her father's home, in fact, was in Caroline County, and the
historical society recently won a $10,000 grant to hire a historian to find
the site and document the evidence.
"Everybody thought Harriet's actions were centered in Dorchester," Walsh
said. "And we found out that a major portion of her activities took place
here. The truth of the matter is that county lines didn't mean that much to
Harriet and her operations, but these days, it's more important to us."
There is also something else new and unusual stirring from the research, an
attitude that even Larson might find refreshing.
Jay Meredith, a descendant of a Dorchester County slaveholding family, has
renovated an old country store on his family property where Tubman, as an
adolescent, is thought to have sustained a blow to the head that possibly
caused her to have religious visions and to suffer debilitating seizures for
most of her adult life. Unlike his father and grandfather, Meredith has opened
the store for tourists and uses it to prompt public conversations about the
role of slavery in the county's history. He wants it all out in the open.
"The previous generations here had recollections of this history or were
told stories firsthand, and a lot of people were just ashamed of it or wished
that if they didn't talk about it, it would just go away," Meredith said.
"But with my generation, seeing people like Kate Larson and other people
doing this deep research, we're beginning to open the doors on this stuff and
look at the facts and ask questions. I think that's good. They're bringing it
out in a way that, finally, we can really discuss it."
A Legend Unshackled
Changing times, biographers' determination bring the true Harriet Tubman out of myth and into the light.
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